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Wednesday, September 22, 2004


Tashlich, water, and ducks beyond the pond

Where I live in the greater Monsey area, we've got plenty of water - ponds, streams, brooks, lakes - you name it. We also have hundreds of Canada geese - large and aggressive animals that can render any street, yard, or playing field useless with their copious excreta.

But that's not what I'm writing about, really.

When I was walking to shul on Shabbos Shuva, it was raining rather heavily. I passed the pond in Willow Tree Park, and noticed that all the ducks and geese were standing on the grass - not swimming in the water. They all seemed to be at "attention" stance - standing up straight and enjoying the rain, in some fashion.

And that's when I thought of the pasuk that we read at the end of Tashlich. "... For all the land will be filled with knowledge of Hashem, as water covers the sea."

And it made sense to me. When water's everywhere, waterfowl don't need to be in the water. They can even be on land - God has essentially extended their comfort zone beyond the pond.

And that's an apt metaphor for Torah Judaism. Right now, we have to be confined to our little ponds and lakes in order to be completely ensconced in a Torah environment. If we venture out, we're entering a foreign zone that's not completely hospitable to our needs. But when daas Hashem fills the whole world, we'll be able to venture freely.

Now, I know traditional literature talks more about Jews needing Torah like fish need water, but that wouldn't work with my story, would it? I'm still thinking about that...

And I'd love to hear everyone else's thoughts. Comment! Write! Keep in touch!

Tuesday, September 21, 2004


Slichos at the Carlebach Shul

Hey all - a gutt yohr and gmar chasima tova to you.

I realize I'm a week late, here, but I've been mulling some Yamim Noraim-related issues and now I have a chance to write a little.

I davened the first set of Slichos at the Carlebach shul in Manhattan this year. If you've read any of my music rants, you know I'm a big 'chasid' of Shlomo and proud member of the Monsey 'chevra.' I was excited to see the Moshav Band in concert and then to daven with like-minded people. Over the previous two years, I've been honored to participate in Slichos with the Monsey chevra at private houses - and those have been deeply moving and meaningful. I figured I'd get the same feeling, amplified exponentially, at the source.

So first of all - the Moshav Band ROCKS! I am no expert, but I know quality guitar work when I see it. Duvid Swirsky and Meir Solomon, despite their relative youth, play off each other like veteran musicians - they're a joy to hear live. That's really all there is to say.

We then paused for a few words from Cheryl Shammes - whose brother, Andrew Zucker (HYD), was killed in the World Trade Center attacks - and R' Naftali Citron, rav of the shul. Slichos kicked off around 1 a.m., led by Yehuda Green. I had never met Reb Yehuda before, and I was very impressed with his enthusiasm and vocal skills. He's a consummate singer and a spirited chazan.

What I wasn't prepared for was the influx of (presumably) Brooklyn people. Streimels, payos, beepers, nextels, and the hocker-type folks to which they were connected streamed into the shul by the dozens. And they all pushed their way to the front of the shul, which miraculously accommodated them all.

The davening went nicely, I thought, until we reached "lishmoa el harina." There are a few Shlomo niggunim that fit this piyut well - Sholom Aleichem, Al Eileh, and Eishes Chayil, just to name a few. But here, they sang each stanza to a different tune, and spent a good 5-10 minutes on each one. Cute and sweet, mamesh the highest, right? Okay. But the singing was getting more enthusiastic and joyous than contemplative and prayerful. And people were clasping hands and dancing happily - which I thought was a little anachronistic.

I know, I know. "Dance your way into the book of life." You're supposed to be happy all the time. Slichos are not about misery - I get that. But they are about connecting with G-d in the darkest hours of the morning and pouring out your heart in prayer. The Slichos I've had with the Monsey chevra have been more along those lines.

So then I was thinking - this is probably why so many Brooklyn types came in. The teshuva and mussar aspects of Slichos and the Yamim Noraim have been pushed down their throats so heavily by the 'yeshivish' establishment there, and the emphasis on propriety and piety and crying and fasting so thoroughly embedded, that they feel a need to break out. And the rebound effect pushes the Carlebach Slichos past the 'rejoice in trembling' mark and into Simchas Torah territory. It's sad that this is the case, but I'm glad that these people had an outlet. It would be even more tragic to have them skip Slichos and feel that they can't be accepted without judgement anywhere in the frum world.

So - the singing faded and the davening continued, until we hit Shma Koleinu. Again, each pasuk had its own tune. More singing and dancing. Slichos didn't conclude until 3 a.m. I felt a little like it was an edurance test more than a session of soul-stirring prayer.

But the singing was deep and beautiful, and the chevra was diverse and welcoming and also beautiful, and if there's any model to follow for creating a davening where Jews of literally all races and levels of observance can be comfortable, this is the place to start.

With blessings and love to everyone - I remain yours truly.

Tuesday, September 07, 2004


On Hebrew reading

Okay - I know I've been away for a while, and I apologize to my loyal fans (all two of you). I wanted to comment on something that I noticed last week, and that disturbs me to no end.

I do not have any degrees in Education, but I do tutor a lot. I give Bar Mitzva lessons. I volunteer for youth groups. I read the Torah and lead services on occasion, too. Recently, I was learning Maseches Brachos with a child, and we encountered the word "Shchiva" - resting. We know that we have to read Sh'ma when we lie down, and when we arise (uv'shachbecha, uv'kumecha), and the Mishna and Gemara discuss what time that is, exactly.

Now, the word Shchiva is fairly common, and (I would hope), most yeshiva students at the sixth- or seventh-grade level have encountered it in studying Chumash. The shoresh (root) is SH-CH-V, which is common and easy to remember, and thus fairly easy to apply to other occurrences of words with that shoresh.

The child in question wasn't able to translate the word right away. So I asked the child to isolate the shoresh. The child did. I asked whether the child had encountered that word before, and the child was hesitant. I asked the child to recite the famous verse from Sh'ma - and the child said, "...uv'shavtecha, uv'kumecha."

Well, of course he wouldn't recognize the shoresh that's common to the two words - he's been misreading the word in Sh'ma for his whole life.

Now, this is a common mispronounciation -- in nursery and kindergarten. At those ages, children learn the words of popular prayers by rote and song, not by reading, so they produce something that sounds like whatever the teacher is chanting. The word uv'shachbecha is fairly complex, so children compensate by creating shortcuts and saying the word quickly. Even more often, you find children doing this in bentching - birchat hamazon.

The problem is, they carry these mistakes over to grade school and beyond. And nobody's doing anything to stop it.

Diligent educators ought to have these children revisit the popular prayers once they are thoroughly comfortable with Hebrew reading - usually in third or fourth grade. This will prevent some of the problems I've encountered with some of my students.

When I was in 12th grade - that's senior year in High School - my shiur rebbe had us open up a siddur and read Sh'ma and Sh'mone Esrei. We were somewhat insulted by this exercise, but we went along with it. His goal was to point out how many grammatical and definitional errors we make when we misread certain words and and mispunctuate certain phrases. And there were plenty. We were humbled by the experience, and improved our reading skills. Optimally, this should not be happening in a High School classroom - but earlier in the process.

This same rebbe made a point of telling us that whatever other skills one may need to grow into a serious learner, reading and comprehending are the most fundamental. And this skill is not being emphasized sufficiently in the yeshiva system today. I hope someone in a position to make some changes actually reads this and thinks about it.

Kesiva v'chasima tova!

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